The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Delegates vote to ban hunting with hounds

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Liberal Democrats yesterday voted to ban hunting with hounds, ignoring warnings that it could cost the party parliamentary seats in rural areas.

Alex Carlile, the MP for Montgomery, was jeered and hissed as he defended fox-hunting as part of the rural way of life. He described some opponents of hunting as 'flat-earthers' and urged the conference to leave it as a matter of conscience, not party policy.

But Simon Titley, rapporteur of the party's animal protection working group, dismissed Mr Carlile's argument. There had been a 'deluge' of resignations from the party because of the behaviour of Liberal Democrat MPs over the last Commons attempt to ban fox-hunting, he said.

Extending the 1911 Protection of Animals Act to include wild animals, and an end to coursing and hunting with hounds, is the most controversial proposal in interim policy statement on animal protection, A Matter of Conscience. It also proposes an end to the use of animals in the testing of cosmetics, household goods, tobacco products and weapons; phasing out intensive farming methods including battery cages; and a mandatory dog-registration scheme.

A note towards the back of the document points out that hunting has been one of the issues on which parties in Parliament have not taken a collective view.

'Liberal Democrat MPs follow this tradition and, therefore, vote on this issue according to individual judgement,' it states.

Writing in the conference gazette, Alan Beith, the party's economics spokesman, made plain that MPs would continue to regard fox-hunting as a conscience issue and the public should not be misled by the document. Mr Beith, the MP for Berwick-upon- Tweed, is opposed to a ban.

But that was not the view most of the delegates. Peter Chegwin, leader of Gosport Borough Council, said fox hunting was the litmus test by which the public would judge whether the party was serious about animal protection.

The MPs should 'stop getting their knickers in a twist', Mr Chegwin said. 'If it really is a conscience issue, what kind of a conscience is it that wants to kill animals in the name of sport, and what's a conscience like that doing in our party anyway?'

Mr Carlile emphasised the political importance of the issue for rural areas, where a ban would have a dramatic impact on employment. Nor would the paper save a single fox, he said. Farmers needed to control the number of foxes and would resort to other methods, some potentially very cruel.

'Anybody who believes otherwise is being no more realistic than a flat-earther. Some farmers, deprived of the right to control foxes by hunting, would exterminate them in all sorts of other ways, some potentially very cruel . . . For there is a need for control. Foxes do attack, injure and kill young lambs,' Mr Carlile said.